Artist Will Ryman talks about his new exhibit, ‘Anyone and No One,’ and his massive, theatrical, noncommercial art

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'Everyman,' by Will Ryman. ()
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Jed Lipinski

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On Wednesday night at the Paul Kasmin gallery at 10th Avenue and West 27th Street, the artist Will Ryman was talking about his exhibition, which was to open there the next day.

All around him, studio assistants were hustling to complete the ambitious show, Anyone and No One, which features two large-scale installations, one in the gallery’s Tenth Avenue location, the other in the newly opened space at 515 West 27th Street, formerly home to Bungalow 8.

“I’m more nervous about this show than I’ve ever been before,” he said.

The exhibit’s six-ton sculpture of a raven, made from 1,500 giant nails (some commercially produced as real hardware and some fabricated by the artist for this piece) had yet to arrive.

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Of greater concern was the brazenly enormous Everyman, a 90-foot figure of a man sewn and soldered together out of 485 pairs of shoes, 3,000 silver bottle caps and over 400-square-feet of blue denim. The figure lay curled inside the Tenth Avenue space like a drunken and disproportionate Gulliver, its massive dimensions almost entirely obscuring the interior walls.

“By letting me do this,” he said, “the gallery is really putting its neck on the line.”

Of course, Kasmin is able to take risks with younger artists like Ryman because he just as frequently puts on zero-risk shows by artists like Frank Stella, Kenny Scharf, and David Hockney. In 2010, he opened a gallery in an Istanbul townhouse with a splashy show by celebrity photographer David Lachapelle.

And Kasmin was at the gallery Wednesday evening, too, examining the lunar surface of the figure's face, and seeming almost serene.

“I’ve been amazingly relaxed about this whole thing,” he said with his light British lilt. “It hardly matters whether you like it or not. It’s just one of the most crazy, peculiar things you’ll ever see, isn’t it?”

Creating crazy, peculiar things seems to come naturally to Ryman. The son of minimalist painter Robert Ryman, he began his career as a playwright in the absurdist tradition of Samuel Beckett and Eugène Ionesco. But by 2003, he had become disillusioned with the theater, with actors in particular, and began to build these sorts of sculptural environments—sets, without actors— that “let the play’s scenery tell the whole story,” as he has put it before.

Since then, he's exhibited a startlingly wide range of oversized, mostly papier-mache creations that walk a thin line between happiness and sadness, euphoria and despair.

The Bed, for instance, from a 2007 show at Marlborough Gallery, featured a bedridden 26-foot man who seemed to be both suffering from and indulging a hangover, surrounded by sculptures of Ballantine beer cans and a bag of Doritos.

For a 2009 show at Marlborough called A New Beginning, he built a giant sculpture of a rose bed, its floor littered with cigarette butts and crumpled Starbucks cups, its scale large enough to tempt the viewer to reimagine him or herself as a rodent scuttling among the petals.

Two years later, after leaving Marlborough for Paul Kasmin, he abandoned what he considered the constraints of the traditional white box gallery to stage his first public art installation: a collection of 38 distorted steel roses, some up to 25-feet tall, planted along Park Avenue.

At the Tenth Avenue space, a giant hole in the massive figure’s forehead now serves as the entryway to the adjoining room. Here, visitors walk through a winding labyrinth of 200,000 stacked paintbrushes (purchased from a Chinese wholesale manufacturer for $20,000) that evoke the folds of the figure’s brain. “The more I stacked the brushes, the more I realize I didn’t see the brush anymore,” Ryman explained. “I thought, ‘How great would it be if I could walk into a giant structure made of this?’”

At the West 27th Street gallery, the raven, known simply as Bird, finally did arrive, and now sits inside the high-ceilinged room as if in the center of a cage. A wilted steel rose hangs from its mouth.

“It’s an outdoor sculpture,” Ryman said before its installation, “but it’ll be indoors for now.”

But coming back inside for Anyone and No One gives Ryman's work a new purpose.

“I’ve always wanted to challenge and—I don’t want to say destroy, but definitely change the commercial symbol of the white box gallery,” he said. (And it's something Kasmin seems willing to let him do.)

“Paul is my dream dealer,” he said. “He’s willing to grow and expand with me as an artist. It excites him to take risks, which I think is rare for a gallerist of his stature.”

At the packed opening on Thursday night, Walton Ford, whom Kasmin has represented for 16 years, concurred with Ryman.

“Paul is extremely lenient, in the sense that he’s not trying to get you to make work for the market,” said Ford, whose last exhibit featured three 9-by-12-foot watercolor and gouache portraits of King Kong’s face. “He’s old school, like Castelli was. He builds your career, instead of thinking about what’s happening in the art world this season.”

The opening drew an impressive list of art-world luminaries and general boldface names, including the artists Kiki Smith and Tom Otterness and actor and art-world habitué Molly Ringwald. The tight quarters caused visitors inside the Tenth Avenue space to brush up against the colossal bottle-cap arm, dislodging caps like so many skin cells.

The artist Stephen Antonakos and his wife, Naomi, each picked one up off the floor. “Souvenirs,” Antonakos said, grinning.

Visitors saw different things in the paintbrush towers: sliprock canyons, seismic graphs, double helixes, echoes of Richard Serra’s torqued ellipses.

“It has this beautiful furry side, like the belly of a cat,” said the writer Jonathan Ames, before remarking on Everyman’s lack of a “bulge.”

In a phone interview the day after the opening, Ryman sounded noticeably relieved. “I didn’t know if we’d be able to get that bird in the door, but we did,” he said, laughing.

Growing serious, he added: “This show was more about me and my life and how I see things than any of my previous shows. I felt naked in there. But in a good way.”

Will Ryman’s 'Anyone and No One' is on view at the Paul Kasmin Gallery, 293 10th Avenue, through March 24.